What Is a Behavioral Interview? And How to Prepare for One (2022)

Not sure how to answer behavior-based interview questions? Here's what you need to know.

Whether you're an active job seeker, or you're considering a career move that will soon place you into the applicant pool, giving some thought to the interview process will put you in a better position to land the job. In today's world, many organizations and hiring managers are turning to behavior-based interviews instead of traditional interviews to help them identify job candidates for long-term success.

Also called competency-based interviews, this format is popular with hiring managers across industries. ZipRecruiter reported that in a January 2015 ExecuSearch Regional Hiring Outlook survey that focused on northeastern United States, 63 percent of respondents replied that they used behavioral questions during interviews.

So, what does a behavioral interview mean for candidates? Should you expect a trap? Will the hiring manager try to throw you off your game? Is the conversation about to get confrontational? Before you get too nervous, we explain everything there is to know about behavioral interviews.

What is a behavioral interview?

A traditional interview involves open-ended questions that allow the job candidate to share information and opinions with the hiring manager. This interview approach often focuses on qualifications, personality, and hypothetical scenarios that leave room for the candidate to fabricate information and tailor responses to what they believe the interviewer wants to hear.

Behavioral interviews, on the other hand, focus on the candidate's past performance and behavior to predict future performance and behavior in similar scenarios. Per Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., Creative Director and Associate Publisher of Quintessential Careers, traditional interview questions are said to be only 10 percent predictive of future on-the-job behavior, whereas behavioral interview questions are 55 percent predictive of this. Developed by industrial psychologists in the 1970s, behavioral interviews are also referred to as competency-based interviews.

What behavioral interview questions are like

Hiring managers use behavioral interviews because they want to go beyond the obvious answer. When pressed for details and specifics, candidates can't help but reveal their habits, ways of thinking, and past responses to stressful situations.

Will you get a warning that your interview is going to actually be a behavioral interview? No. But you can be on the lookout for a few question openers that will indicate if you're in a behavioral interview. Here's what they might sound like:

  • Tell me about a time…

  • How have you dealt with…

  • Give me an example of…

  • Explain a past situation where…

What do those questions have in common? They take you back to a specific situation in the past and ask you to recall your real-life responses, action steps, and results. A behavioral interview can be intimidating, but it's also a fantastic opportunity to showcase your experience, skills, and strengths. You just have to know what to expect — and come prepared.

How can you prepare for behavioral interview questions?

When you give some thought to what common behavioral questions and interactions might take place during your interview, it can relieve your nerves and help you stand out from your competition. To help you prepare for a behavior-based interview, consider the following tips.

1. Know what to expect

Expect challenging questions.

Now, the hiring manager isn't asking hard questions just to make you sweat. However, they don't want to waste precious interview time talking about straightforward scenarios. The hiring team wants to see how you have handled real-life difficulties. They want to know what value you've added and how you've contributed to the solution. Finally, they want to understand what your definition of a “challenge” is. Every candidate has different calibrations for what they consider to be difficult — and matching those calibrations is a big part of ensuring a solid long-term fit.

2. Research and create a list

The best place to start your prep is to determine which skills and qualifications matter most for the position. Go back to the job description and highlight keywords that describe the position requirements. You can also research the company and the types of employees it hires. Examples of some common skills and competencies that organizations want to know include timeliness, attention to detail, problem-solving, focus, ability to collaborate, emphasis on goals, efficiency, effective communication, and leadership.

Once you have a shortlist, think back to specific situations where you have clearly demonstrated those skills, character traits, and attitudes. The best way to capture your responses is by jotting down one or two stories for each point. But, choose your stories carefully — they will provide a window into who you are as a professional and a person. The right story will turn the hiring manager into your champion; the wrong story, meanwhile, can elicit a cringe or an awkward pause.

4. Use the STAR method

As you develop your examples and scenarios for your behavior-based interview, use the STAR technique to provide specific situations.

  • S: situation. Explain the context for your story. Who was involved? How did the situation begin?
  • T: task. Describe the problem you were tasked with solving.
  • A: action. Outline the steps you took to resolve the issue. What actions did you take?
  • R: results. Share the outcome. What was the result of your work? How did the situation resolve?

The more specific you are, the better. Keep in mind that employers might check your responses, so make sure to share accurate information that's verifiable.

5. Practice your behavior-based interview questions and answers

It's never too early to begin practicing for your job interviews. Have someone work with you to review and answer the questions you've created. The more you practice, the clearer your answers will be when you're sitting across from the interviewer.

Be careful not to completely memorize your responses during your interview prep; the last thing you want during a behavior-based interview is to have your answers sound rehearsed and stale. Instead, try out different ways of telling the same story until it feels natural.

6. Continue adding to your list

If you're currently working at a company, continue to add to your list of potential responses as new experiences and accomplishments arise. Having recent examples will benefit you because it will give an interviewer insight into the skills you are actively exercising.

Types of questions

Depending on the role, an interviewer may focus their behavior-based questions on certain types of skills. Consider these topics, examples, and tips for each:

Leadership and influence

  1. Give me an example of a time when you successfully motivated a co-worker or your team.

  2. Tell me about a time when you had to take on the workload of a co-worker or manager due to their absence.

  3. Describe a time when you managed an underperforming employee. How did you handle the situation? What was the outcome?

Adaptability

  1. Tell me about a time that you felt you failed at a project or goal. How did you handle the situation?

  2. Give me an example of a time when you were moved to a new team. How did you acclimate to the new work environment?

  3. Describe how you came up to speed in your first position. What were some of the challenges you faced? What went well?

Time management

  1. Give me an example of a time when you missed, or almost missed, a deadline. How did you handle the situation? What changes did you make to avoid making the same mistake again?

  2. We often have a lot of items on our to-do lists. Tell me about a time that you felt overwhelmed by all the tasks you were facing. What did you do to handle the list and stress?

  3. Describe a long-term project that you oversaw. What steps did you take to keep things on schedule to meet goals and deadlines?

Problem-solving

  1. Give me an example of a time when you made a mistake. How did you handle and correct it?

  2. Describe your goal-setting process.

  3. Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with your manager or a co-worker. How did you handle the situation?

Listening and communication

  1. Tell me about a time when you were leading a virtual team. How did you communicate with team members and ensure the team remained connected?

  2. Give me an example of a time when your approach to a problem or project was unpopular. How did you communicate with disgruntled co-workers? How did you get them on board?

  3. Describe a time when you were asked to develop written communications and content for a significant leadership presentation.

Client-focused

  1. Give me an example of a time when you had to provide a customer or client with unfavorable news, or you did not meet their expectations. How did you handle it? What was the result?

  2. Provide some examples of times when you had positive experiences with clients. What do you contribute to your success?

  3. Describe a time when you were working with a challenging customer. How did you handle it?

Questions on handling stress

“How do you handle stress?” is almost always asked in a behavioral interview. This is one answer you don't want to come up with off the top of your head, so do your homework. Come up with real-life examples that highlight your stress-management skills.

When responding, don't blame others for the stress you felt. Instead, highlight how you used your amazing soft skills to overcome the stressful obstacle and ultimately succeed.

Acknowledge that you do experience stress; not doing so will make interviewers think you don't take your job very seriously or that you're lying. If you're blanking on work examples, explain how you personally manage your stress. For example, sharing that you meditate or run to alleviate your stress shows the interviewer that you don't let things bottle up until you burn out.

Questions about conflict

Questions about conflict might make you uncomfortable, but you need a relevant answer about how you handle it at work. The STAR method works particularly well for conflict questions.

Here's an example:

  • Situation: I was in charge of a major project for the department.

  • Task: One team member kept missing deadlines and got angry when I confronted her about it. I had to pivot and address the issue with her with a solutions mindset in order to keep the conversation productive.

  • Action: I calmly explained the reasoning behind the tight deadlines and the importance of meeting our goal on time, and I asked if there was a reason she was struggling to do her part. It turns out she had several other tasks that put her on overload. We spoke to her manager who assigned some of her projects to other people and freed up her time for our team.

  • Results: After that, she was able to focus more of her time on the project, and we came in ahead of the deadline, which [saved x dollars, brought in x new clients, or any other quantifiable result].

Always be honest and highlight your strong communication skills wherever possible. You can also share a conflict situation where you were wrong and explain how you handled it and what you learned from it. This proves you can accept criticism when necessary and use it for your personal and career growth.

The value of being yourself

As you prepare for a behavior-based interview, keep in mind that an interviewer what's to get an idea of who you are. In a 2019 study by TopInterview and Resume-Library, U.S. employers regarded authenticity as the most attractive quality in a candidate, rating personality as one of the top three things that determine whether they'll present a job offer.

Employers aren't looking for perfection or a robot. They want to see your interest in their position, whether you can handle the responsibilities, and how well they'll enjoy working with you. Use an authentic attitude along with your answers to convey this clearly.

Conclusion

While a behavioral interview can be challenging, it doesn't have to be overwhelming. The more you prepare and practice, the more confident you'll feel when you're in the interviewing room.

If you are having a tough time choosing and verbalizing your stories, you are not alone; it's difficult to do this without the benefit of feedback. If you don't want to learn a hard lesson in your next behavioral interview, consider hiring an interview coach. Combine strategic prep with real-time feedback from the experts, and you will sail through that behavioral interview and be on your way to reviewing competing offers in no time!

Want to set yourself up for success in a behavioral interview? Work with a professional interview coach today.

This article was updated in April 2021. It contains work written by Natalia Autenrieth and Lisa Tynan.

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